Monday was the first weekday with no school since the Saline Area Schools District beat Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to the punch and closed local schools until at least April 6. With schools closed and restaurants closing their dining rooms to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, one of the more bustling sites in town was the parking lot at the corner of Mills Street and Michigan Avenue.
That’s the home of Saline Area Social Service. For more than 50 years, this small non-profit agency has helped less fortunate Saline residents with a food pantry and other assistance.
(Donate to Saline Area Social Service by clicking here. Volunteer by clicking here)
On a typical Monday, SASS might serve people from 30 to 35 households. They’d usually come into the building at 224 W. Michigan Ave. and choose food items stored on their shelves, just like people might at a small market. Maybe they’d talk to Anne Cummings, Executive Director, or Patty Dysko, program manager, or one of the other women on the five-person team.
But it wasn’t a typical Monday this week. The staff was joined by 35-40 volunteers. The volunteers were in the building, stocking food as donations poured in. They were also helping to sort food and package it. By the shopping-cart load, unloaded donations they took food and goods into the pantry, and then out to tables in the parking lot, where volunteers served clients as they drove up.
At the end of the day, the staff and volunteers had served about 80 households - probably twice the normal amount they’d serve on a Monday, said Cummings.
“We didn’t know what to expect. But we had a pretty steady day. We had more than we typically have,” Cummings said. “It wasn’t astronomical.”
One day relatively soon, it might be.
And that’s the point of the new drive-up service, the pre-selected packages, the volunteers serving for hours outdoors on a chilly, cloudy day when many people were in their homes, beginning what’s looking more and more like “sheltering in place.”
Each month, Saline Area Social Service provides a food pantry and other services for 400 Saline households. They’ve been providing this service in the community for 55 years.
With school out, there are about 650 children in the district who aren’t being served meals provided by Saline Area Schools for free or at a reduced cost. Saline Area Schools Superintendent Scot Graden tapped Saline Area Social Service to provide food for those families. Last Friday, the district’s food service’s director, Larry D’Andrea, of Chartwell’s School Dining Services, dropped off a truckload of food at the food pantry. Since then, the district has been blasting out social media posts encouraging people to volunteer and donate to Saline Area Social Service.
Other school districts around te have developed food service plans that allow families to pick up meals in public spaces or that even deliver meals to families. Saline Area Schools chose to use SASS.
When things are changing by the hour, flexibility is at a premium.
“I wouldn’t want to develop an elaborate system that becomes antiquated within hours,” Graden said.
Hypothetically, the governor could issue an order banning deliveries and send the district back to the drawing board.
And there’s another advantage.
“Some of the families who need food assistance might be able to take advantage of some of the other things offered by Saline Area Social Service,” Graden said.
SASS also can provide emergency assistance with rent, utilities, and car repairs and assist with other issues.
Graden said he and his food services department have been in frequent contact with Cummings.
“This is not just for people who’ve already enrolled for help from Saline Area Social Service, or for families whose children use the Saline Area Schools free and reduced lunch program,’ Graden said. “No families will be turned away if, for whatever reason, things have started to turn and you need access to food.”
With things changing so rapidly, nobody’s sure how long this partnership will last. Barring a major development, Graden sees SASS providing food service for the district until at least April 6.
At Saline Area Social Service, Cummings, her staff and the volunteers are ready to help.
It wasn’t busy Monday. But, as more people are laid off and as need grows, more people will turn to SASS. Cummings knows that.
That’s why the community’s support, through volunteerism and charity, is so important. One person ordered 100 loaves of bread from Benny’s Bakery for SASS. There were almost as many vehicles dropping off goods as there were pick up packages.
“We’ve been very lucky. Everyone from the school district, the big businesses and community have really pulled together,” Cummings said. “We’ve gotten large donations of things that are hard to find, like toilet paper.”
Financial donations are also critical.
“Having financial security allows us to be very nimble and reactive and help these people quickly,” she said.
It’s been heartening for Cummings to see the community rally around the SASS mission as this potentially huge endeavor begins.
“I’m fortunate to see all aspects of the community come out, whether they have a lot or a little. They want to participate and make sure everyone’s okay,” Cummings said. “For me it’s humbling to see the giving side of the community and caring side of the community, where all people want to do is just help their neighbors.”
And so they’re out in the parking lot in their winter coats, packaging food and wiping down surfaces, waiting to serve food and household goods to their neighbors.
They arrived at a steady pace Monday - perhaps not as frequent as Cummings might have imagined it might be over the weekend. But they know more people drive up soon.
“I would anticipate that the longer we’re into this shutdown, and the more businesses are shut down, the greater the need will be,” Cumming said. “But we’re ready. The community has really pulled together. We’re as prepared as we can be”